Sunday, June 01, 2008

James Carlos Blake, "A World of Thieves" (2002).

Over the last couple of months I've been doing pretty well pulling recommendations off of Amazon. I've discovered several authors that I have enjoyed, and I'm sure that I'll continue reading their books. Many of these writers work within male-oriented genres. The characters are hard and capable of excessive violence. They are also tortured by the disconnect between the way things should be, and the way the world is. There are a lot of unattractive truths and complicated relationships. Certainly there is also a lot of moral relativism. For the most part, I've enjoyed the themes these authors have explored. If nothing else, they have found a way to avoid easy answers and broad generalizations. That's why they seem so true.

As I finish one title, I'm led to the next in a chain of kinship. In this way I came across the name of James Carlos Blake. The man is the product of the Texas/Mexico borderlands, and a descendant of a noted pirate. As a kid he made pocket change by capturing poisonous snakes. It's been said that Blake is the literary equivalent of film director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). Certainly Blake manages to pack a lot of bloody incidents into his narrative. His characters seem fated to fulfill their harsh destinies despite the circumstances that might momentarily distract them. It seems a point of confidence for Blake that a man will be what he is meant to be despite his own will.

Buck, Russell and Sonny are not exempted from Blake's convictions. They believe (as the author no doubt does) that thievery is in their blood. A World of Thieves chronicles their adventures in Louisiana and Texas. Sonny is an orphaned teenager that is slowly learning his own place. He has cast his lot with his paternal uncles and intends to find his fortune by hook or by crook. Fraternal twins Buck and Russell started out as gamblers and petty thieves, and slowly worked their way into committing armed robberies. While their eldest brother (Sonny's father) looked the other way regarding the crimes of his siblings, he wanted something different for his son. But when he passed away, Buck and Russell recognized Sonny's true nature and kinship.

A World of Thieves begins with a botched bank robbery that results in the capture of Sonny (whose job is to drive the getaway car). As luck would have it the authorities have very little evidence that Sonny is guilty. He expects to get released quickly, but then finds himself sticking up for an effeminate weakling in his holding cell. As a result Sonny finds himself staring down a life sentence, and he is sent to Angola- a prison plantation in the swamps of backwater Louisiana. Despite history and conventional wisdom our protagonist believes he can successfully escape his imprisonment, and sets off to do just that. Against all odds he succeeds and sets off to rendezvous with his mentors and resume his life of crime.

Blake's spare prose keeps the reader's eye moving quickly through the pages. There is very little extraneous description- the writing is almost entirely focused on the action. I found this a bit unfortunate, as the novel's settings have enormous atmospheric potential. The characters blunder through the murky wilderness, raise hell in raucous oil-boom towns, and make pit stops along isolated desert roads- but Blake skims over all of this, rushing toward his eventual goal of utter destruction. He also inverts traditional morality in such a way as to make the villains heroes, and vice versa. He punctuates his narrative with moments of brutality, but for the most part he makes a crime wave look like a humorous romp. I don't think this approach does his material justice.

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